Escaping the cycle of life and death
In India, the tradition of pilgrimage is deeply rooted within the realms of its religious consciousness. Owing to large number of pilgrim spots spread all across this sub continent, the entire region can be labelled as one vast sacred space. There are early mentions of pilgrim spots or sacred places in the Vedas (Rig Veda and Atharva Veda), while the Mahabharata speaks of many holy sites across the sub-continent, and the number increases in the Puranas. Such pilgrimages or holy sites are known as tirthas in Hinduism, and visiting these places is termed as tirtha-yatra. To a devout, tirthas are much more than just geographical locations on the map. Such is the importance of tirthas in the minds of millions that a tirtha-yatri visiting a pilgrim spot will hope to end the endless cycles of life and death and achieve moksha, blessed by the sacred aura of that place.
Haridwar: The gateway to Hari or Vishnu
Among many such tirthas in India, one of the most important tirthas is Haridwar. Here one gets to experience the pulsating movements of thousands of people as they perform various religious activities and take holy dips in the cold blue-green waters of the holy Ganga, and view the splendour of the evening Ganga aarti on the various ghats. An old city located beside the holy Ganges, the name Haridwar when translated to English, loosely means Gateway to Vishnu/God. Alternatively the city is also called as Hardwar, which is associated with Shiva (Har) and means the entryway to Himalaya which is Parvati’s father’s kingdom; hence entryway to Shiva’s sasural or his in-law’s home. Haridwar was also known as Gangadwara, as it is here that the Ganga touches the plains; while in the Puranas the place was often referred to as Mayapuri.
Ayodhyā Mathurā Māyā Kāśī Kāñcī Avantikā
Purī Dvārāvatī caiva saptaitā mokṣadāyikāḥ
As the Garuda Purana tells us, Haridwar is among the seven most punya-kshetras or sacred spots, which gives moksha. In scriptures, Haridwar finds mention in both the Mahabharata and Puranas; while archaeological evidences go back to 1700 BCE -1200 BCE. From Huan Tsang’s records written in the 7th c. CE , we find mentions of Mo-yu-lo (Haridwar) as having a ruined fort and few temples. The current city and ghats were said to have been built by Raja Man Singh in the 16th century CE, and his ashes were immersed here at the Har ki Pauri. Guru Nanak also visited Haridwar, and had taken a holy dip at the Kushawart Ghat.
Haridwar’s religious significance can be gauged from the fact that it is among the four sacred cities that host the two famous religious fairs: ardh-Kumbh mela and Kumbh mela, which take place every 6 and 12 years respectively, rotating between the four holy cities of Haridwar, Nasik, Ujjain, and Prayag (Allahabad). The kumbh mela celebrations that go back in history for many centuries, honour the tale of samudramanthan, a fight between the gods and the asuras over a kumbh or pot of nectar that gave immortality to the one who drank it. During this fight, the heavenly kumbh/pot was displaced from its position, and drops of nectar fell on earth on four different places. It is in these four places that the Kumbh Melas are now held.
Haridwar, which stands at the foothills of the Himalayas, is considered the holiest among the four locations. Textual evidences from as back as 1695 place the city as the original site of Kumbh mela; while the Magh mela of Prayag is held as the oldest among all religious tirth melas in India, and finds mention in the Puranas. With the river Ganga flowing down the mountains and cutting across, Haridwar is a city of pilgrimage for Indians all throughout the year. It is believed that a dip in the holy Ganges washes away all earthly sins, helping the pilgrims to move out of the cycle of births and deaths and attain moksha; while floating a lighted diya in its swirling waters help to attain what one desires.
In Haridwar the best way to spend one’s time is to sit on one of the innumerable ghats that dot the riverside, and observe the ebb and flow of humanity. The main ghat, known as the Har ki Pauri, supposedly dates back to the times of King Vikramaditya, and the ghat’s significance is derived from a footprint that was believed to have been made by Sri Vishnu. As one sits here or on any of the ghats, it is easy to be magnetically pulled into a vortex of spirituality. One sees innumerable sadhus in saffron robes moving around or reading from religious books; common pilgrims chanting mantras while bathing; floating little lighted diyas on leaves with hopes etched on their faces; singing devotional songs as they sit for pujas on the river bank; and carrying the river water in small pots, as a keepsake after the holy dip. A milling crowd surrounding one river, whose bright blue waters quietly gurgle on their way, creating the vital life line of India, both in a physical and spiritual sense.
Besides the riverside views, a walk down the various lanes of Haridwar is quite an exhilarating experience. Starting from the main ghat, the Har ki Pauri, one enters the bazaar lanes that have a distinct medieval feel to them. The streets are narrow, and one has to jostle with cycles, bikes, throngs of people, and innumerable cows roaming freely, often causing commotion and jams. The bazaars in these narrow alleyways hold little shops selling shining and garish items, which vary from little red and orange mountains of sindoor, metal puja utensils and murtis of gods, to small and large tridents, stone mortar-pestles, delicious pickles, rudraksha rosaries, and cheap imitation jewellery. As one explores further, one comes across shops that sell chai, the famous Haridwar rabri, and other delectable sweets and savoury products, the smells of which mix with the fragrance from burning incense sticks, creating a heady and heavy atmosphere. The pretty old houses lining the roads, now mostly turned into dharamsalas, with their beautiful stone work and wall murals make the walk further interesting.
From the streets and lanes of Haridwar
After exploring the lanes and bazaars of Haridwar, one must view the evening aarti that takes place at different ghats. The main aarti takes place at the Har ki Pauri ghat, and is a sight worth seeing many times over. As one sits amidst the waiting crowd and observes, there comes into view the orange and purple robed priests who are busy preparing for aarti while simultaneously chanting mantras. Standing or sitting all around the riverbank and waiting patiently are hundreds of devotees from all over the country; and as one sits and muses, he or she slowly comprehends the magnitude and power of religious faith. As the feeling of awe slowly sinks in, darkness descends and priests start the aarti, moving heavy lighted metal lamps, and ringing metal hand-bells. As the evening air turns heavy, redolent with burning camphor and incense; in the background constant chants of the Ganga strotram and shouts of ‘har har gange’ from the crowd lend an ethereal air to the entire setting. One is reminded of what Mark Twain had said in the 1890s after seeing the Kumbh mela, “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining.”
Other things to see and places to visit
While in Haridwar one can visit the Mansa devi temple, which is situated on the top of a nearby hill, and there is a ropeway to take one up. Kankhal, a quiet town, where the Daksha Yagya had supposedly taken place leading to Sati’s death, is also nearby and worth a visit for seeing some pretty temples on the rounds. Rishikesh, another important and beautiful pilgrimage, is worth a day’s visit from Haridwar. Besides temples, Rishikesh also has many activities, like river rafting that will entertain the more adventurous travellers. Rajaji National Park is close to Haridwar, and those interested in jungle adventure will find it a wonderful location.
Getting there to Haridwar
Regular trains, buses, and cars from Delhi are available for travelling to Haridwar
When to go
While pilgrims visit the city at all times of the year, for travellers the best season would be the cooler months, from October to March.
Where to stay